Amazingly, there are still NASCAR fans that profess not to like the Chase for the Championship points format in Nextel Cup. Of course, that system was introduced by NASCAR's Chairman of the Board/CEO, Brian France, and initiated at the start of the 2004 season. In the beginning, it was easy to understand the initial outcry from those that for multiple reasons had felt that NASCAR was moving too far and too fast from their roots. Now, though, continued resistance from fans has turned puzzling, as the Chase has done nothing but a world of good for the sport.
Maybe that resistance comes from the desire to keep things the same. Change is difficult for many of us, and NASCAR has in the last several years made some decisions that would test the resolve of even the most liberal minded of fans to continue to follow the support with the loyalty that they had previously demonstrated. Race fans liked tracks such as North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, and NASCAR simply pulled the rug out from under them, without remorse. In short order, the Southern 500, the Labor Day tradition of racing at Darlington, was moved to California. In their place, more and more tracks have been added that just didn't look, feel or smell like the NASCAR that these fans grew up with and endeared them to the sport. Brian France is seen by some as the person easiest to blame, the one responsible for the loss of some of NASCAR loyalists’ fondest memories.
Well, it’s true things have changed over the last 20 years in NASCAR, and changes have seemed to be more frequent and dramatic since Brian France took charge less than three years ago. The sport has grown, and become very much a mainstream attraction on a nationwide scale. Some longtime fans understandably resent that no one bothered to consult them as to what they would like to see in the way of improving the sport. It is no longer a south of the Mason-Dixon line sport, having shed almost any lingering reminders of its beginnings. But these changes, good or bad, were all business decisions arrived at by NASCAR's front office management to maximize present and future profits. After all, that is what successful businesses do; they grow, change and are flexible in making changes that are believed to benefit the business in the long run.
No matter how much fans may like the racing, the competition itself is, to NASCAR, a commodity that they are continually looking to package for sale at the highest price and to the largest number of fans possible. Some of the many changes NASCAR has implemented can be debated as to whether in the long run they are good for the sport, but the overhauling of the point system to allow for what is a playoff system for auto racing is a gift that we should only thank Brian France and NASCAR for.
NASCAR has the longest season of any major professional sport in America and, as such, it is only reasonable to expect that spectator interest will wane at different times during the long season. We all look forward with renewed anticipation at Daytona in February at Daytona as our drivers prepare for the season-opening 500, and that excitement generally continues at least through the spring and early summer. However, along the way NASCAR has known that fans become distracted by numerous other activities vying for their attention, including fans’ interests in major league baseball, and, later in the year, college and professional football. At a point just after halfway of the NASCAR Cup season, things become very much "same old, same old" to all but the most avid of race fans. By August, as football games and other summer activities begin to compete with NASCAR's thirst for viewers, a large segment of race fans must make a decision as to where they are going to focus their time limited interests.
In 2003 B.C. (Before Chase) the decision as to whether to continue to follow the Nextel Cup season exclusively or to divert some or all of a fan’s attention elsewhere was, in many cases, not a difficult decision to arrive at. Often, by midseason it had become clear that possibly three or four, but more likely only two drivers stood any chance of winning the championship, and if that particular fan’s favorite driver wasn't one of them, the rival NFL game looked much more appealing. In truth, depending on whom a fan supported, organizing the sock drawer seemed equally interesting. The newness of the season had worn off, hopes had been squashed, and it was time to satisfy the need for entertainment somewhere else.
The 2006 season would, B.C., be a contest between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson to win the Championship. Not to bust anyone's bubble, but fan favorites such as Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and defending champion Tony Stewart would now be walking a tightrope between doing enough to finish in the Top 10 and making changes in their organizations to hopefully improve enough to compete for the Championship next season. Any hope of winning it all this year would have evaporated weeks ago. Instead, thanks to Brian France's innovative decision to establish the Chase format, fans of those drivers are still watching each race intently, and those drivers account for a very large percentage of all NASCAR fans.
There is no guarantee that all of the most popular drivers will be included in the Top 10 when the field is set for the Chase to the Championship, and, of course, there shouldn't be any guarantees. However, some will inevitably make the final cut, and for those that don't, the races leading up to the last ten races provide much more hope and interest to the fans of those drivers than they would have had under the old point system. NASCAR enthusiasts can now follow the sport from season's beginning to end with a true sense of excitement and interest as to the final outcome of the long season. Now, on August 9th, 2006, there are still at least thirteen drivers that could realistically become this year's Cup Champion. That's thirteen drivers, owners, and team members along with their countless number of fans that still have every reason to remain optimistic and excited about their prospects for the final stretch of races. And, truth be told, every NASCAR fan, although maybe pledging primary allegiance to a driver outside the Top 10 as the Chase begins, will have an alternate driver/team that they feel an affinity for, and will root for their good fortune and success during the championship run.
Traditionalists need not feel that they have sold out by embracing the 10-race, Top 10 free-for-all Championship format that is now in place. It's a playoff; all the other major sports do it. Sports exist because they entertain, and the Chase certainly has increased the entertainment value to our sport. The Top 10 Chase to the Championship is clearly one of the good decisions that Brian France and NASCAR have made. It would have been great 20, or even 30 years ago. Oh man, what kind of stories would race historians be recalling now had the likes of Petty, Yarborough, Pearson, Allison or Waltrip competed under today's championship format.
NASCAR purists may or may not have valid complaints concerning the vastly changing landscape of the premier stock car series, but sometimes change is for the better, and this is one of those times. The first two seasons of the new points format have left the question of who would be crowned the season's champion in doubt until the last lap of the last race of the season. There's every reason to believe that the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup Chase to the Championship will once again leave fans, old and new to the sport, sitting on the edges of their seats in similar anticipation.
Thanks, Brian France.
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